Can the Internet Bring the Beginning of the End of Selfishness?

The final chapter isolates what Benkler calls "design levers," guidelines for motivating people to cooperate that entrepreneurs, developers, planners, and managers should all find quite useful. Beyond this advice for practitioners, Benkler concludes with the "larger truth" he has aimed to convey: that we are not universally selfish, and that "cooperation trumps self-interest...far more consistently than we've long thought."

While most readers should be amenable to this conclusion, it is hard to overstate the extent to which it clashes with economic dogma. Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman chastised his profession in a 2009 essay for "mistaking beauty for truth," claiming that economists had "turned a blind eye to the limitations of human rationality." This vision of rationality assumes the very narrow version of selfish motivation that Benkler deflates, and yet it continues to be central to the practice of economics. Indeed, as Australian economist and blogger John Quiggin has detailed, it undergirds modern macroeconomics models. Of course, Benkler is not alone in challenging that assumption. That is the basic premise behind the rise of behavioral economics, which has gained traction in popular culture through the work of economists like Dan Ariely. Benkler's work differs in two key ways. The first is that much of behavioral economics, rather than dismissing selfishness as a motivator, focuses on the idea of "bounded rationality," or how we set out to be selfish but fail to do it well. 

The second is Benkler's ambition. Whereas much of the popular work in behavioral economics is aimed at helping readers better understand and improve their own individual decision-making, Benkler's focus is squarely at the systems level. Moreover, his framing of the Penguin model as an alternative to the Leviathan or Invisible Hand suggests applicability to society at large. After tracing macroeconomic history from pre-nineteenth century European monarchies through the industrial revolution, the New Deal, and the Washington Consensus, Benkler writes, "If neither the command-control systems dictated by the Leviathan nor the Invisible Hand of the free market can effectively govern society, where shall we turn? Can the Penguin deliver us more robust, working social and economic systems that break us out of this vicious cycle? I believe that he can." This is what makes The Penguin and the Leviathan more interesting than broadly similar works. 

It is also what ultimately makes it less satisfying. Benkler's guidelines are useful at the micro level, but they are not far enough along to provide much guidance at the macro level. Whatever the merits of the Washington Consensus, it is an actionable macroeconomic agenda in a way The Penguin simply is not. This is not a criticism of Benkler himself, as he has done as much as anyone to push forward these lines of inquiry. But, given his framing, one cannot help but feel frustrated knowing that universal selfishness is both empirically wrong and yet necessarily at the heart of how we make decisions about economic policy.

As Churchill said of democracy, modern economics is the worst method for understanding the economy, except all the other forms that have been tried. That is, despite the constant criticism the discipline faces, particularly in light of the recent financial crisis, it remains more useful than any alternative. Herein lies the challenge, as Benkler clearly understands. He himself wrote in The Wealth of Networks, "Much of economics achieves analytic tractability by adopting a very simple model of human motivation...While simplistic, this highly tractable model of human motivation has enabled policy prescriptions that have proven far more productive than prescriptions that depended on other models of human motivation." The task of translating Benkler's "design levers" into a formal economic model is no less daunting than it is necessary.

The highly visible success of collaborative projects online has made the importance of non-selfish motivation hard to ignore. Pushing economics to acknowledge a conception of human motivation beyond rational self-interest is still akin to pushing a boulder uphill, but the Internet has at least lowered the gradient. Benkler's work is both a formidable refutation of the assumption of narrow selfishness and a useful guide to building successful cooperative projects. And while the false assumption of selfish rationality will for now continue to guide the formal modeling of the macroeconomy, The Penguin and the Leviathan equips readers to begin changing the public conversation on the question of how humans work together. It is comforting to be reminded that most of us are not fundamentally selfish. It is long past time that our institutions in business and government realized as much.

Image: Joi/Flickr.

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Walter Frick is an associate editor at Harvard Business Review.

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